Robert Wrigley and John Burnside
photo credit: Scottish Poetry Library
Robert Wrigley & John Burnside,
Scottish Poetry Library, 07/11/2013
Though a hard wind and rain blew continuously outside, poets John Burnside and Robert Wrigley shared a cosy and intriguing evening of poetry in the small, packed-out, upstairs gallery at the Scottish Poetry Library. It was a mirrored experience for the audience as both poets had a similarly relaxed delivery and read poems that mused upon nature, women and death.
Prolific writer John Burnside is a regular fixture on the Scottish reading scene, though hearing him is always pleasant and enlightening. He read from his forthcoming collection from Cape, All One Breath, which made the audience feel a little privileged. Burnside mentioned he had been reading the Bible lately and ‘it didn’t do me any harm’. When he was young he was told ‘Aye, you’ll make a grand priest’ and he now confesses, ‘I am a little less pious’. Rocking on his feet, he read weighty but elegant poems about religion, family, badgers and birds. One line in a poem about peregrines stuck out gloriously: ‘flicker of sky in our bones, almost flight.’ Burnside ended with a poem about a burial – his own. Having had his idea for sky burial vetoed by his wife, he imagined one anyway, which contained the line: ‘up until then I thought I was afraid of nothing’. There was a kind and informal tone to his delivery which protects the fact that his poems explore old, deep hurts.
Hailing from Idaho, multi-award winning poet Robert Wrigley read from first UK collection with Bloodaxe Books, The Church of Omniverous Light. He had only been in Edinburgh a couple of days, he said, but loved it because ‘everyone was so friendly’. He sang the praises of Burnside who once sent him a letter expressing his admiration. In his rather long interlude before reading, Wrigley searched for some Scottish connections. ‘My oldest friend in the world has the name Robert Burns’, Wrigley said, ‘but he claims to be Irish’. He also has a friend whose last name is Edinburgh and whose first name is Scott. These jokes were a counterpoint to Wrigley’s poems which are not jokey at all, but contemplative and remorseful. He read with heavy intonations on select words. He read several poems about his wife, the novelist Kim Barnes, who teaches Creative Writing alongside him in Idaho. Barnes attended the reading and he apologised to her about some of the more intimate details in the poems ‘Sorry baby, that’s why you’re sitting in the back’. Poems about camping in the woods, and the forest view from their window seemed richly foreign. One about his wife’s silver lock of hair had an unexpected bouncy ending: ‘my world in a curl, girl, this man oh man half man I am / when you’re gone’.
A more satisfying finale might have been to see the two writers in discussion, as a way of tying up the two halves of the reading. Perhaps the audience could have further mused upon why these two poets were paired together… other than both are extremely accomplished and their languid, lyric poems are firmly connected to the earth.